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A bowl of butter chicken, with rice, dal makhani, pink onion pickles, and coriander chutney.

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How the Most Famous Butter Chicken in the World Started With No Chicken at All

Goila Butter Chicken founder Saransh Goila talks about his history as a chef, and the background to the dish that catapulted him to fame

Saransh Goila’s butter chicken in situ at Carousel, with jeera rice, pickles, dal makhani, and coriander chutney.
| Ashanti Omkar

When Saransh Goila finished his London restaurant residency in February 2020, he — like the rest of the world — had no idea of the COVID-19 pandemic on the immediate horizon. He’d been cooking at Carousel, then in Marylebone, serving 1400 people a seven-course tasting menu anchored by his murgh makhani: a butter chicken he has dubbed “quite simply the best butter chicken in the world.”

Residency over, the natural choice was to return to India, where his nine restaurants have coalesced into a sterling reputation built on slow-cooked tomato, cashew, and smoke. But Goila chose instead to open delivery kitchens in a city already very familiar with butter chicken and ordering delivery, at a time when ordering delivery was all they could do. Still, it stuck — endorsements from the likes of Priyanka Chopra Jonas probably helped — and Carousel founders the Templetons saw an opportunity. At their new space, at 23 Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia, a tiny “incubator” became home to Goila Butter Chicken’s long-term residency, offering a small sanctuary for diners and a base for Goila, who has now expanded delivery across the UK.

The meal kits, like the restaurant, are anchored by the murgh makhani, served alongside naan; jeera rice; pink pickled onions; dal makhani; and coriander chutney. As the residency draws to a close, Goila tells Ashanti Omkar about his background, becoming a TV chef, and how his version of butter chicken started with no chicken at all.

Saransh Goila at Goila Butter Chicken’s London residency.
Saransh Goila at Goila Butter Chicken’s London residency.

I didn’t start wanting to be a chef: I wanted to be an actor. But my parents were like, “no, no, no, you cannot do this. You are not made for television.” In truth, I was a side-parting, proper humpty-dumpty sort of a boy. I would walk and break things. Still, I said if you won’t let me be an actor, I’m going to cook.

I never thought I’d become a chef — it was a hobby — but it got ingrained in me because my entire family would cook, including my grandfather who said I should become a chef. I think he had a gut feeling. I was his sous chef, and would cook with him every Sunday. We would cater weddings and other events, and my family would make me be the one to taste, to make the rotis and parathas aged 13. It was always full of joy.

My family weren’t my only influence. Grandad and I used to watch chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khana Khazana together, and I used to try making his desserts, like jalebis. I then did a culinary course at the Taj Group of Hotels for three years, and when I was there I could tell I was already ahead of some of the chefs, not in cooking, but in explaining my dishes, talking and engaging people, like I’d seen Sanjeev do on screen.

Chef Saransh Goila squeezes cream into his butter chicken.
Finishing off the bowl to a tee.
Ashanti Omkar

When I got my first kitchen job, I quit out of boredom. I moved to Mumbai and my father helped me with his savings. When I told him I was there to do an acting course, he was shocked, but he said “It’s your life.” He let me pursue it.

I did the acting course and they were shocked, as I was the first chef to study there. I pursued it for a few months but still really wanted to promote food, like Sanjeev. I knocked on doors, sent cold emails. There were no replies so I went back to Delhi, to my family home. My Dad gave me a last chance and invested in a catering company for me. It was my own business, but I was stuck in a rut. I felt I was meant to do more. And then I got my break: a call from my hero, Sanjeev Kapoor’s office.

Saransh Goila lifts up a metal bowl that covered a bowl of murgh makhani, smoke billowing from charcoal placed in the butter.
Using coal and cardamom in melted butter to create smoke.
Saransh Goila smokes a bowl of butter chicken
The aroma permeates the finished dish.

It was for a show that predated Masterchef India, hosted by Sanjeev. I went on to win that show, but the big news in India was Sanjeev was presenting it. I didn’t matter. But the prize did: my own TV show. I asked for a show that allowed me to see Indian food for what it truly is. To my luck, they were looking to do a show which would cover 100 days around India: 20,000 kilometres, 60 cities, and 25 states all by road. It was called Roti Rasta India, and it changed my life.

I came back after that and did pop-ups, menus informed by all the travel. But really I was still a Delhi boy, and that’s where butter chicken came in. My family are actually pure vegetarians, so had never tried it; they would have butter paneer. That always felt sweet, creamy, a bit bland to me, while my idea of butter chicken was robust, spicy, fiery and smoky. I’d actually tried meat, without my parents knowing, and used joining the Leela as an opportunity to tell them that I had to eat meat or I’d lose my job. A bit sneaky, but it meant I knew what good butter chicken tasted like. I could make a version that with the smoky, deep umami flavour they really wanted from butter paneer.

Slowly, slowly cook and reduce the tomatoes for umami and sweetness, and use cashews for silkiness and creaminess. My family’s palates for this dish focussed on subtlety, so I found a way of infusing spices into this recipe like the French bouquet garni, with Indian spices. It’s like distilling gin — a hint of clove or cinnamon, rather than a more aggressive temper.

But the biggest hurdle was getting that robust, charred flavour with no chicken and no smoke. I used a technique from making pindi chole to make a smoky ghee, made with cardamom and coal together, covered. I applied the same technique to the butter of the butter chicken, and used kasuri methi for further depth. It worked out, and that’s the base of the butter chicken to this day — just with added chicken.

Saransh Goila at Goila Butter Chicken’s London residency.
Goila with his finished dish.